Eleventh-hour agreement on shorelines

After months of heated debate, the Bainbridge Planning Commission may have reached an agreement on shoreline buffers – the most contentious among many regulatory issues.

But because the commissioners have almost run out of time to meet the Bainbridge Island City Council’s deadline for handing off the issue, they may not be able to produce any document that reflects their last-minute consensus.

Policies under consideration still call for bands of vegetation along the shoreline. But the depth and makeup of the vegetation would depend upon the specific physical requirements and needs of a particular piece of property.

“We are deleting provisions that base buffer depth on zoning classifications instead of geology and topography,” said commission member Mike Cox. “And there will be two tracks to allow flexibility and ease of use.”

The commission’s Thursday study session ended its formal efforts at reviewing proposed updates to the city’s shoreline master program.

The issue became heated last fall when city planners suggested that required buffers might include view-obstructing trees, and that under certain circumstances, homeowners might have to install shoreside vegetation where none now exists.

Those proposals generated standing-room turnouts – mostly of irate property owners – at commission meetings, and deeply divided the commission itself.

The current plan creates two options for determining buffer size. One option would use a “decision tree” to base buffer width on site-specific factors like unstable slopes, which could require trees to promote stability.

“Depending upon the specific conditions on the property, the buffer could be zero,” said commissioner Donna McKinney, who developed the plan.

The results of that decision-tree process would be “programmatic” – something to which the applicant would be entitled, and that could not be altered by the planning department.

A property owner dissatisfied with the outcome could decide instead to take the other option, under which the applicant could try to persuade planners that a smaller buffer would be appropriate.

The planning group called for creation of a mayor-appointed shoreline commission to assist applicants in that flexible process.

“This would be a substitute for an expert hired by the applicant,” said commissioner Julie Kriegh.

McKinney also proposed a “point system” for applicants on the flexible track. Under that system, a certain weight would be assigned to the environmental detriment a project would impose. The applicant could offset that detriment by selecting from a menu of weighted options.

“One of the major environmental problems in Puget Sound is heavy metals, which come from road runoff,” McKinney said. “So a homeowner might be given points for installing a filtration system for stormwater runoff.”

The immediate difficulty is that because of the time crunch, the subcommittee that worked on the buffer issue don’t include any details like the proposed decision tree or point system.

In some cases, the draft document fails to reflect the group’s intent, particularly on the critical issue of when a homeowner will be required to plant a buffer.

Under the draft language of the report, a buffer would be required whenever a homeowner applied for a permit to expand either the dwelling or the septic system. The commissioners said that they actually intended more restrictive language, in which homeowners would trigger a buffer requirement only if they expanded into the buffer area, not if they expanded landward or upward.

Commission chair Sean Parker said he favored the concepts presented verbally, but not the written report.

“As this is explained, I find it hard to disagree, but I didn’t get the same sense as I read the document,” Parker said.

The other critical issue was how to deal with non-conforming uses – structures that were legal when built, but that would not conform to current regulations, generally because they would not meet the present setback requirements.

The commission recommends that structures accidentally destroyed 50 percent or less can be rebuilt on their existing footprint, but structures more than 50 percent lost by accident, or destroyed intentionally, will have to be rebuilt to conform to present code to the extent possible.

The practical application of this is that some older homes – sometimes originally built as small, seasonal cabins – could not be voluntarily demolished and replaced with new homes on site unless the new home conforms as closely as possible to present-day setback requirements.

Gary Tripp, chairman of Bainbridge Concerned Citizens, which formed to oppose the shoreline plans, remains unhappy with the commission’s proposals.

“No one opposes vegetation along the shoreline, but what right does the city have to prescribe what people plant?” he said. He also criticized the potentially negative impact on property values of the non-conforming use provisions.

Saying BCC will be actively involved in city council hearings on the issue, Tripp said he did not believe the planning commission reacted to the negative public comments.

“I’m unhappy with the non-responsiveness. We seem to be exactly where we would be if no one had participated in this process except the staff.”

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